January 25, 2008 / 12:01 PM / 10 years ago

"Mongol" actress: from soldier dreams to Oscar buzz

DOLAN, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - Khulan Chuluun, the Mongolian female lead in the Oscar-nominated Kazakh film “Mongol,” says she never wanted to be an actress. She wanted to be a soldier.

“I wanted to be in the army, to study in a military school,” the 23-year-old told Reuters in a country villa in the icy hills of south Kazakhstan where “Mongol” was partly shot.

“But I couldn’t get into the military school. ... It was pure chance that I became an actress.”

Financed by Kazakh investors and shot by Russian director Sergei Bodrov, “Mongol” was nominated for best foreign film at this year’s Oscars -- the first-ever Oscar nod for Kazakhstan.

The 15 million euro ($22 million) epic about Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan was filmed mainly in northern China and the steppes of Kazakhstan -- a country the size of Western Europe which, like Mongolia, is populated by the descendants of nomadic tribes.

“The film is about Mongolia, about Genghis Khan. And he is like God in Mongolia,” Chuluun said.

She was picked for her role as Borte, the fearless wife of Genghis Khan, as she queued at the Chinese embassy in the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator two years ago to get a visa.

“I was approached by (a casting agent). She asked me if I was Mongolian. I said yes. It all happened by chance,” she said.

Then a student, she said the adjustment was hard. “It was a difficult role. But the easiest thing was riding a horse. We all know how to do that in Mongolia.”

“Mongol,” a string of epic battles and panoramic shots of misty landscapes, is a tale of war and survival tracing the early life of Genghis Khan, played by Japan’s Tadanobu Asano.

At the February 24 Academy Awards in Hollywood, it will compete against “The Counterfeiters” from Austria, “Katyn” from Poland, the Israeli war drama “Beaufort,” and Russia’s “12.”

The film has changed Chuluun’s life completely. She married a Kazakh man who played a small role in it and is now settled in Kazakhstan, a Muslim state closely knit to her Buddhist homeland by its Soviet past, cultural heritage and Cyrillic alphabet.

“Kazakhstan is very much like Mongolia,” she said, sitting alongside her husband by a fireplace. “We are all nomads.”

Editing by Philippa Fletcher

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